Commentary

Syria's Opposition More Divided Than Ever

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

News of the killing of a Free Syria Army commander by al-Qaeda affiliated militants has once again raised questions about the ability of the Syrian opposition to remain united to oust Bashar Assad. The concern is that with the infighting among the competing factions on the rise and the continuing absorption of al-Qaeda fighters into the opposition forces, no amount of weapons or logistical support by the West can turn the tide against the pro-Assad forces. Unfortunately, these reports come after the new Syrian National Council (SNC) leadership vowed to make the unification of the Syrian opposition a top priority.

Reflecting on the appointment of the new SNC head, Al Arabiya's Raed Omari wonders: "What can the SNC's Ahmad al-Jarba achieve? … The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) has finally elected a new president, Ahmad al-Jarba, but the hope is that this time his election is the product of an unalterable consensus and based on a unified vision on what should be done next. Now it is crucial that the SNC under al-Jarba's leadership works vigorously on changing the stereotypical image of Syria's main opposition group as divided, lacking cohesion, vision and, more importantly, dynamism and political maneuvering."

Just days after the announcement of Mr. Al Jarba's appointment, Arab News reported on the rising number of Pakistani Taliban fighters who "have set up camps and sent hundreds of men to Syria to join fighters opposed to Bashar Assad…in a strategy aimed at cementing ties with al-Qaeda's central leadership. More than two years since the start of the anti-Assad uprising, Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters who have flocked to the Middle Eastern nation....Taliban militants in Pakistan, who are linked to their Afghan counterparts, are mainly fighting to topple Pakistan's government and to impose separate law, targeting the military, security forces and civilians. But they also enjoy close ties with al-Qaeda and other militant groups who have, in turn, deployed their own fighters to Pakistan's volatile tribal region on the Afghan border."

The report also came out after the much discussed ambush killing of a FSA commander by what many suspect are al-Qaeda fighters. Following his death, Gulf Today staff expressed concern: "Months of uneasy calm between jihadists and the mainstream Syrian opposition has spilled into fierce fighting in Aleppo days after a senior Free Syria Army commander was assassinated by a so-called jihadist group....Foreign fighters are believed to have led the attack on the Aleppo checkpoint and killed the senior commander, Kamal Hamami, on Thursday in the countryside north of Aleppo. Jabhat Al Nusra, the main jihadist group that is aligned with al-Qaeda, and the FSA had until recently worked alongside each other during major operations in the north. While relations between them have not yet broken down, the rise in prominence of fringe organizations is eroding discipline across opposition ranks."

The killing, according to Serene Assir, has laid bare the divisions and the different visions of a post-Assad Syria among Assad's opponents: "Simmering hostility between Syria's mainstream fighters and militants has erupted into naked violence, with a Free Syrian Army commander in the coastal province of Latakia being shot dead by an al-Qaeda front group....There are two main al-Qaeda linked factions, both with Iraqi origins — the Al-Nusra Front, which has operational independence, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a front for al-Qaeda in Iraq. They are believed to have several thousand fighters on the ground in Syria. While the FSA is fighting to overthrow the Assad regime, the militant groups are intent on installing an Islamic caliphate in Syria."

Given the fact that the one person who stands to benefit the most from the recent in-fighting among the rebel forces is President Bashar Assad, Al Hayat's Abdullah Iskandar wonders whether Assad is somehow implicated in the support of these al-Qaeda affiliates: "The question here is about the extent, to which these terrorist groups are linked to the regime, since they are fulfilling its goals. It would be difficult to conclude that these groups are part of the regime's apparatus....These organizations, which declare themselves linked to al-Qaeda, have played a major role in undermining the opponents of the Syrian regime and of its allies in Iraq and in Lebanon. And that is what they are doing today by targeting the leaders of the FSA in Syria."

For some, the infighting is understandable, given the lack of resources and support from the international community. This, at least, is the sentiment expressed by a recent National (UAE) editorial: "Such infighting is to be expected. Money and weapons — although not of a quality or in sufficient quantity to alter the course of the campaign — have flowed to various factions and the scrabble for them has divided what ought to be a united opposition. It signals a breakdown of hope among the fighters. As the world has dithered in its response to the slaughter by the Assad regime, the clear path of the uprising has been obscured. If the rebels felt they were making progress and had the support of the outside world, they would not descend to such wasteful infighting."

Others are not convinced and in fact point to the divided opposition infiltrated by al-Qaeda militants as a very good reason for the West not to become further embroiled in the Syrian crisis: "The killing of a leading Syrian opposition commander at the hands of al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels will add to the difficulties faced by western leaders over their policy for the country....The Syrian crisis is transforming the entire Arab Mashriq, encompassing Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and potentially Israel/Palestine into one vast arena for what is now a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islam. Any external intervention bears the risk of an open-ended engagement....The real question facing the West and its allies today is how to deal with a future Syria that is more likely to have Al Assad at its helm even if only nominally than not."


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